29 Jun 2011

The Making Of Cyclic

 I started my journey to RIMC[1], each term, from a small coastal village called Ambalapuzha in Kerala, by a rickety bus. The bus had an outstanding nose, about as long as the cabin at the rear. Used to remind me of Pinocchio and his awful nose when he told lies. The same bus did shuttle service, and one had to wait by the roadside many hours if one ‘missed the bus’. There were no bus stops, it stopped often, even when there was no reason to stop, and no passengers to get on or off. My impractical luggage consisted of all my worldly processions packed into an unnecessarily large, standard issue, steel trunk and a holdall bedding roll, both of which I could never lift, at least till I was 15. At 15 I started weight lifting and body building just so that I could lift my own luggage. Travelling light was impractical those days. My father would accompany me on the first leg of my journey each term. We had to cross several ferries and it took all day to reach Cochin Harbour Terminus about 79 km from my village. My father would turn around and go back home. I would then board a special RIMC compartment attached to Cochin Exp, that got attached and detached to several other trains en-route, and which travelled all the way to D Dun in about 5 ½ days. The compartment was an old British army hospital carrier, with doors and windows like a standard compartment now-a-days, but with a large, wall to wall, empty hall inside. It had three tier padded retracting bunks, much like seamen quarters in a submarine, to accommodate around 60 passengers. There were about ten odd boys who boarded from Trivandrum and Cochin and the rest would board en-route, all the way to Delhi. With the seats folded and retracted, we often played hockey, a national feverish pastime those days, all the way to D Dun. During meal timing, the train would have one hour long “meal stops” at wayside stations where a delicious hot meal would be served to us by a spotlessly liveried waiter wearing a tall ‘Safa’[2][i] along with crisply ironed napkins, silver cutlery and bone china crockery, all at the station cafeteria or in the train as per our fancy. The station master would usually come by to “pay respect” as was the custom in Railways those days, to courtesy the man in uniform, a legacy from British Raj. There were times in my pre teens that I wanted to be an engine driver or a Station Master. Sometimes, in my childish fantasies, I even thought of becoming a waiter, taking a fancy to wearing a crisply ironed white uniform with a Safa. In later years, as a young IAF officer, I invited the wrath of the Supreme Commander, the then President of India, Sanjeeva Reddy, by turning down his invitation to be his ADC, because I did not like wearing a Safa, but in my youth I did contemplate being a waiter !! From pre teen years, as time went by, I have wanted to be many things in my life, but not once in all the years at RIMC did I ever imagined that I would be an IAF officer or a pilot. In RIMC, sadly, I had no idea of service life. I joined NDA as an IAF cadet by default, simply because of the fear of a Dr / Capt Sharma who did Army medical at Meerut SSB[3], and insisted on checking all cadets for piles, using an unusually large hollow pipe. There was no other way to avoid him, other than to join the IAF. Amongst all the happy memories of school, there is none that I remember with greater fondness than the travel up and down every term, specially the prolonged excitement of going home and the short-lived sadness of coming back.   

Pre teens, and as a teenager, returning to school every term, my mother always quartered a ‘Hamam’ soap and gave me four pieces of soap and one large Colgate toothpaste. She also would give me a small bottle of herbal coconut oil and a very large biscuit tin with delicious victuals. Other accessories that she provided every term were buttons, needle & thread, and a roll of black 3 mm thick hosiery rope which I could cut to length and use as shoe laces when in crisis. The rope also came in handy when the shoe uppers and sole parted company frequently as a result of much shuffling and drilling. The oil smelled awful and I would throw it away on the first day at school. The biscuit tin of victuals would be confiscated and eaten by senior boys. In those years one first spread a bit of toothpaste on one’s fingers and brushed afterwards, mainly to save toothpaste. One bathed twice a day and hence applying soap was not considered necessary, except to wash my hands after a crap.  I did not start shaving till I reached NDA[4] and that too only because of compulsion from then 18 Div Sgt Cdt Koshy (later Lt Gen). Every morning, around 0430 hrs, standing at attention in front of his cabin, I had to mimic an elaborate shaving ritual with soap, brush and a spoon, all of which were meant to start my day in good humour. I have thereafter, never had to use a mirror to shave and the shaving ritual peps up my morale – makes me laugh thinking of doing it with a spoon. One of my first recollections of RIMC (in my first term) is a scraping sound that I heard when sitting on the toilet and contemplating my plight. The sound was acrimonious, like using a hack saw. That was one of my very hirsute classmates from Bihar (Madhu Kumar) shaving, and who insisted that he was only 10 yrs, younger than I.  In RIMC, I rarely if ever used any form of cosmetic. The four quarter soaps and a tube of toothpaste usually lasted through a whole term. I now shudder to think of my hygiene habits in my teen age years. However, compared to other cadets, I was not an unacceptable freak, we were all like that. A soap was not considered necessary to bathe. I rarely required tailor/mochi[5] backup, I did it all myself. However, I did requisition many additional uniforms and shoes, all of it were bartered at the school canteen for ‘Samosa’[6] and Cola (a local brew which defies description). During first two terms in RIMC, I could not stand the food, lost approx 42% body weight, and survived on Canteen products. Afterwards, after acclimatisation, I could never have enough of RIMC food, especially the cutlets, liver curry and Scotch Eggs. I never ever bought any of the things that I was supposed to buy with my pocket money, I ate every bit of it, mostly cakes, pastries and chicken patties when Samosa was not available. In later years, at NDA, the single purpose sense of entertainment for every occasion was to eat crispy hotdogs and drink Mangola. The ubiquitous Samosa, deep fried frankfurters, encased within fried bread loaf, and the Mangola, remain my fantasy food even today at 60.   At RIMC those days, pocket money was unnecessary, everything was free, excellent food, very good living conditions, two in house movies a week in the auditorium, there was really nothing to spend on.

In later years, when I got to know girls and knew of their monthly mood swings, I have been reminded of my own mood swings because of pocket money, or the lack of it. Inadequate PM has been my PMS for major part of my life. As a cadet in RIMC, a weekly pocket money was given to me, usually to buy shoe polish & brasso, personal cosmetics (basically toothpaste, brush, soap and hair oil), other personal accessories (shoe laces mainly), repair our clothing (mainly shoes). And I never bought any of those things. In RIMC, in my preteen years, the PM was a princely sum of “One Rupee”. Instead of currency note or coin, we were given chits (printed slips), which we could then use at the canteen, tailor or mochi shops. Currency (rather 12 of brown and blackish One Anna Brass coins) were given to us, usually after breakfast on Sunday mornings, only when we had been given “Weekend Liberty” permission to go out of the camp, much like parole for a convict. When the One Rupee Chit was not fully spent, we used to record the credit balance in a ledger kept in the canteen, tailor or mochi shop and come back to claim it on another occasion. The total pocket money that was charged to our parent in a term was 30 Rupees and since there was rarely a term with more than 26-28 weeks, it was a common childish perception amongst cadets that the house master stole our money. In retrospect, I think the venerable house masters had impeccable character and it was a grossly unjust juvenile perception.  Out Pass, or ‘Liberty’ was given infrequently, only when one matured to the middle or senior dormitory and one had to apply for it well in advance with a special reason for seeking Liberty. The reasons for seeking liberty may now sound most incredible, mind blowing and incredulous, but at that time I am proud to say that I did not lack zestful and very fertile imagination. Once given liberty, we would gulp down the sumptuous breakfast, seek packed lunch from ‘Thopley’ the Butler, and run off to Ghari village next door where one could hire a cycle. The greatest pleasure in my child hood was to cycle. It became a burden only after joining NDA. In NDA, more often than not, I had to carry the cycle on my head. At Ghari, we had to pay only a ¼ Anna, a copper coin with a big hole, for every hour that we used a cycle. The first time I went on Liberty, I never got past Cambrian Hall before the chain came out, got entangled into the wheel and I went for a toss. For next two days I was administered by Matron’s[7] foul yellow concoction for cuts, bruises and muscular damage. The real damage was to my ego and I never went on liberty for quite a while.  However, I do recollect that one could drink a beer mug with cold coffee in Paltan Bazar for one Anna, see three movies, one after another, each for an Anna, and still have money left when I returned to RIMC. One Rupee could fetch a lot of entertainment those days.  Whether on Liberty, or ‘cutting bounds’ (unauthorised visits to the town), which we did quite regularly, seeing a movie and drinking a mug of cold coffee was the sum total of our democratic existence, the raison d’etre.        

The total school fee at that time was around Rs 750 per term. Since my father’s salary around that time, as a Commissioner of the Devaswam Board was only about Rs 266. My total annual expenditure to him was 47%  of his annual salary. He actually did not have to spend anything on me since I earned an annual scholarship of Rs 1500 from Kerala Govt from the first year after I joined RIMC. Most of the boys were on scholarship.  Ever since I joined RIMC, I had some kind of scholarship all through my teenage years till I was commissioned in IAF. Therefore, I had a very just juvenile perception, and carried this throughout my life, that my body and soul belonged to the Govt Of India. That my spine has an Ordnance stamp on it, as a result of eating free rations from the age of 10. My dad was a very systematic man and read my end of term reports with much interest. Once he asked me, “what did you do with four pairs of shoes ?”. I told him very truthfully, “I ate it Sir”. He was very angry with me and did not speak to me for many days, thinking I had turned supercilious after joining RIMC. Because fathers are enemies during one’s teen age years, I did not bother to explain. After I had joined the NDA, RIMC sent the final accounts to my father, with a cheque for around Rs 1214, balance accrued after debiting all my expenses at RIMC. It made him a very rich man. At that time, my thoughts were, “I wish I knew there was balance in my account, I could have eaten some more shoes”.

Before I joined RIMC, there was great pressure from my dad to study, to perform, to do home work, to excel. Any other activity without books or homework was anathema to him, specially playing any game. In the initial years at RIMC, I found great solace, there was absolutely no pressure on me to study, and on the contrary plenty of encouragement to play games, do co-curricular activity, debate and read. We used to have a self study ‘Prep Period” before dinner, where we sat by ourselves in our class rooms, pretending to do home work. I never did any homework, except when there was a threat of caning or punches from the masters. I would spend most of the prep period writing compulsory weekly letters to my mother in “Inland letters”  that never closed or sealed, no matter how much I licked on it. “I am well, I hope you are well, it is cold here, I hope it is cold there,  it is raining, I hope it is raining there, my socks have got a hole, I hope your socks has a hole too” ...........that kind of letters which made my mother, sad, furious, hysterical and made her write long replies that told me how to write nice informative and loving letters. I loved getting letters, but hated writing them.  The only subject in which I excelled at RIMC was carpentry, only because it was a genetically inherited trait. A large number of my maternal uncles, though they were nuclear scientists, engineers, bankers and doctors, they all had one uncanny common trait – they were all very gifted carpenters, it ran in our blood. Otherwise my academic performance in RIMC was so meritorious that, in every end of term merit list, my name was always above that of SP Sharma, the principal. “Cant you do any better ?”, asked my father once out of exasperation. “Sure”, I replied in the monosyllables conversation that takes place between teens and their fathers. And to prove a point, the next term, I came second in class. “Ah” exclaimed my dad, noticing that I had distanced myself from SP the principal, “Now I want you to come first”. “No”, I said to my father emphatically, ‘I did not promise that, you just told me to do it once, to prove that I am not a duffer”.  Next term I was back to being SP’s collaborator on the merit list. Till I was 30, except for the NDA entrance which I wanted to do well, and hence came 4th in the merit list, I was a brilliant student. In every examination, I always passed, never failed, I never scored more than 40, never less than 40,  always 40% because that was the pass mark. I was so brilliant that I knew precisely how much to answer so that I would get 40%, and not one mark more or less. In retrospect I was punishing my dad, god only knows why, I was in awe of him and loved him very much. My zest to make something out of myself sadly came only after he died.

When I joined RIMC, I was about four feet ten inches, as tall as I was wide. I was gross. I could barely walk because my thighs rubbed against each other. By the end of the first term, I had lost 42% body weight and grown taller. Initially I had no stamina and often had rouble running cross country or playing a game. Three people who changed my life in RIMC were Capt KC Anand (then AO), JS Chatterjee (then Section Cdr Shivaji Section) and CP Choudhury, section Cdr middle dorm of Ranjit. The last two were the most feared and aggressive senior cadets in all my experience at RIMC. The former treated me as his son and taught me the love of sport. The last two treated me as vermin and so gave me tenacity, stamina and the spirit to survive. In later years at RIMC I hated cricket because Manu Dutt (he died in an air accident when we were middle aged officers in IAF) bowled a googly which hit my crotch, and once again left me at the mercy of Matron and her yellow medicine. We wore leg pads those days to play cricket, but to the last man never wore the cumbersome ball guards because it made us look silly. I have been an avid cricket hater ever since. I also hated boxing because Soli Pavri (later Maj Gen) my dear friend and class mate hit me in the solar plexus and I swore never to box again. An amazing coincidence that Soli and I had to do novices boxing all over again at NDA. Despite feeding him 8 mangolas and 8 hot dogs as bribe, with great zest he knocked me out with one punch before the bell was rung to announce the start of the first round. In later years, whenever I was tempted to offer or accept a bribe, I would instantly taste Soli’s punch, and hence he helped me to remain a comparatively honest and straightforward man. It was only after I joined NDA that my sporting talents improved, and I won my hour in the sun, the winner’s cup in National Regatta (yacht racing) in 1969, given to me by Mrs Indira Gandhi. In RIMC I was a late starter. I learnt but did not excel, I read volumes after volumes and inculcated a reading habit but did not accrue wisdom, I debated and took part in dramatics but did not acquire a status of a role model, I was simply an ordinary cadet. However, I think I was a very mischievous cadet, productive and desirable mischief. At least, as ubiquitously mischievous as my two role models in RIMC, Jasbir (later Brig) and Fatty Grewal (later never heard of), both my classmates. Once in Chemistry lab, in my quest to find elixir (inspired by a movie called Nutty Professor – Jerry Luis), I mixed several acids and other concoctions and set it up on the Bunsen burner. It exploded spreading stinking Sulphur Dioxide with as much panache as the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal. I was caned by SP, rather a humiliating experience. Another time I stole two tiny cylindrical aluminium canisters from the photo lab (those days film rolls for camera came in containers like that) to make a liquid propelled engine for my space rocket project. I had secretly made a two feet high rocket with balsa wood. I also stole hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and some other chemicals from chemistry lab, and mixed it all with the sweet smelling Nitro Methane used on aero-model engines, hoping that it would send up my rocket to the moon. One Sunday, I secretly collected my closest friends, and set up a launch station on the edge of the athletic ground, close to the tennis courts. My friends had better sense than I, and while I was initiating the firing sequence, they hid behind pillars at safe distance.  My rocket project shared the same fate as the Saturn rocket project of NASA, precisely at about the same time 1964 – it exploded. I suffered 2nd degree burns on my hands, chin and chest. I was not caned because Matron vouched for me, that I was a very sweet boy, and gave me a motherly hug in front of SP. That is when I noticed that she had a moustache. I don’t know what terrified me more, SP’s caning or the Matron’s moustache. In later years, on my many trips to ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion System Centre (LPSC) at Mahendragiri, where the Cryogenic space engines are built, I would often be reminded of matron’s moustache and smile irrationally making everyone think that I was a bit loony. That was being part of being a Rimcolian – being a bit loony.  I also took part in very unacceptable and very punishable mischief too. Like throwing ink on the new pink Shark Skin suit of Mr Malhotra, our maths teacher, very fondly called “Ka Kad Kan”, the sum total of the subject that he taught. I got caned along with most of the class, for throwing ink at his back, and not on his chest, a lesson for the warrior class which we were expected to become. Another time, like throwing stones at a large beehive outside our class. We had a very handsome and suave Sikh instructor for a while, and for the life of me I cannot now remember his name or why he was unpopular. Anyway, I am ashamed to say that I was one of those few who hid behind the pillars and threw stones at the beehive when this instructor was walking down the corridor coming to our class. We threw stones and ran into our class, closed the door behind us, to prevent the bees from attacking us. The bees, thousands of them got after the Sikh instructor and through the glass panes on the door, we witnessed one of the most horrific tragedies I have witnessed in my life. The bees worked their way into every corner of his body and stung him thousands of times. Within a few minutes his handsome face became like a huge pumpkin and he went into shock. We were told afterwards that his life hung in a balance for many days and he survived only by the skin on his teeth. I never saw this instructor again. Strangely we were never caned for this dastardly act. But the shame of that cowardly act never left me. To this day, I have never thrown another stone at a bee hive, or wilfully done anything to hurt another man woman or child, either directly or indirectly.  I had learnt a juvenile lesson, to draw a line between mischief and wrong doing. Like everyone else, I did continue with mischief though, and there are many an interesting tale to tell.    

While at RIMC I have no recollection of even the most passing interest in Girls. In fact I had no contact what so ever with any girls, there were none within the RIMC campus that I can remember except probably the two tiny girls, children of Mr Bhist, my section master. Once in a while we would go for Doon Athletics and there would be Indian girls from Welham and Amercan girls from Oakgrove jumping about, the latter with minimum dress and fuss. I was most embarrassed on those occasions. I began to mature by the time I was ready to leave RIMC (aged 16).  When we went to write ISC exam, there was a girl sitting next to me (Sita Ramaswami, never seen afterwards. I believe she is now a high profile international financier in USA). I took an instant shine to her. My venerable friends, in particular Jasbir, dictated and made me write a very complicated love letter, the first and last love letter I ever wrote in my life. Next morning I presented the letter to her and waited for her reply. None came. So after two or three days of suspense and exams, I approached her to assess the situation. Her violent and very expressive reaction made me vaporise instantly and gave me a line for posterity. “Jesus”, I ask often, “do you know what women want ?”.  By the time I crossed the teens, I had no time for the boys, I was overwhelmed with too many girlfriends. My peer group from RIMC and I were probably the most eligible bachelors in India at that time.  

In RIMC the energy level was unlimited, probably because we were fed around 4000 calories a day by an exceptionally dedicated, gifted and decorated catering SJCO Bhatia (later Major), who followed us to NDA as the catering officer and very fondly addressed us often as “My Sons, You Bastards”. His son (LKB - fondly referred to as ‘Puttar’[8]) too was a cadet at RIMC along with us. I owe my good health singularly to Maj Bhatia. Even though the country at large suffered from malnutrition and deprivation, he fed us, and fed us, the choicest food that could be had, more than what we could eat. Despite the rigour of our routine, starting a day with PT/Drill at 0530 hrs every morning, and winding up at 2130 hrs ‘lights out”, we just could not, and would not sleep. In later years, especially in NDA, sleep was the only thing which I wanted to do, even sleeping on my head when Keshwani (a very memorable chemistry instructor of our time) made me stand on my head for sleeping in class. I am told that Keshwani would narrate the story of my sleeping on my head to many generation of cadets at NDA.  In RIMC, nights were spent either ghost hunting, playing all night squash or going out on Gunna[9] / Guwawa[10] raids. Those days, there existed an open farmland behind the swimming pool and squash court, behind a fast flowing Nallah[11]. The rear campus wall was only waist high with a broken wicker gate.

Ghosts were on our minds all the time, and dispelling fear, heroics, meant making a midnight visit to the dark and dingy underground toilet behind the cricket pavilion. I did not have the courage to do it on my own, and made an unsuccessful attempt doing it only in the company of several of my friends in a gang, almost at the very end of my stay in RIMC. We made it till the entrance to the toilet on a moon lit night, but was chased away by a single bat which screamed and flew out when we approached.  The squash court was also an equally distant and isolated building, with bats, very dark and inhospitable, till one put the lights on. But to every Rimcolian, it was a warm and welcome place, and it is an enigma why there were no ghosts in the squash court. RIMC those days had every sport conceivable, except horse riding, and it was compulsory to pay all games. All of them were team events, highly organised games, meant to inculcate camaraderie and spirit de corps. All except Squash, which was an individual event. And because it was an unorganised, unsupervised game, to test the mettle of an individual’s stamina and tenacity, it was held as the most coveted sport by every Rimcolian.  We ran to play Squash, every moment that we could spare, mostly at night, all night sometimes.  Down the ages, RIMC has produced successive National Squash Champions, the only game those days in which we could beat Pakistan with ease. Personally, in later life, the only person whom I could confidently beat in squash every time, without cheating, was my wife T. When we were not ghost hunting or playing squash, we went to raid Gunnas or Guwawas. Frankly none ate any of the Gunna or the Guwawa, we went simply for the thrill, for the adrenalin pumping excitement of the chase afterwards, when the farmers set their dogs on us, or chased us, often firing their shot guns at us. As I said earlier, we were a bit loony.

One of my personal idiosyncrasies during my middle dorm days was to wake up past midnight, sneak up to the forbidden senior ante room, climb in through the window, and for hours fiddle with the Grundig radiogram there. I spent hours listening to BBC, Voice Of America and imbibed a craze for English music, specially Elvis and the Beatles. I used to lisp and lip synch with the disc jockey. This helped improve my diction and pronunciation and by the time I could legally enter the senior ante room I could speak with fair amount of confidence and got rid of the earlier Karalite twang and funny accent.  Fiddling with the radio gram, to make it work, I also developed a lifelong love for electronics as a hobby.

Long time afterwards, during a Rimco meet, I asked Mamu (Col Mamgain), my old class mate, who was then the Principal of RIMC, and whose two sons were students in RIMC, whether the boys still did the kind of things that we did when we were boys.  Mamu shook his head wisely, refraining to comment, but his two boys had a very mischievous gleam in their eyes and I could guess that they were not lacking in imagination or zest, that life at RIMC may be different, nonetheless equally exciting.  Reminds me of an old Chinese saying, “Make haste slowly, because the more we try to change, the less we actually change’. In my sunset years, though I am one of those non practicing Rimcolians, less demonstrative in my affections, I remain a most devout Rimcolian, it is part of the DNA and that is what I am.  

[1]  RIMC :  Rashtriya Indian Military College, Erstwhile (pre independence) Prince Of Whales ‘Royal Indian Military College’. Started at the turn of 20th C, it was a boarding school to train and Anglicize upper class Indian children, so that they could be commissioned as officers in the Indian army.  After India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, and till around 1955, the entire officer cadre of both countries were from RIMC (including Pakistan’s first Martial Law dictator (Field Marshal Yah Yah Khan).  The school continues to produce almost 80% of all service chiefs in India.
[2]  Safa:  Elaborate headgear, like a Sikh Turban adorned with a Chinese Fan. Worn on ceremonial occasions by some units of Indian military and by President’s body guards.  Such headgear are also worn by waiters and doormen in some five star hotels in India.
[3]   SSB : Service Selection Board.
[4] NDA : National Defence Academy, at Khadakvasla (Pune).
[5] Mochi :  Cobbler
[6] Samosa :  Triangular fried snack, stuffed with potatoes and herbs.
[7]  Matron :  Matron was an aging nurse (none of us knew her name). There was a full-fledged miniature hospital at RIMC , with a dispensary, operating theatre,  wards and even a quarantine for contagious decease. But we did not have a resident doctor – there was an elderly Sikh gentleman who masqueraded as a Doc, but I think he was a compounder, someone who concocted three basic compounds, red, green and yellow, stored in large bottles in the dispensary.  For routine illness stomach and below it was the red portion, chest and lung the green portion and anything else indefinable, the yellow medicine. For serious ailments we were sent to the Military hospital at the other end of town. When sick, we were looked after by the very kindly and motherly Matron, to whom we were childishly unkind and ungrateful. I don’t know why.
[8]   Puttar : Son
[9]   Gunna : Sugar cane.
[10]  Guwawa  :  Tropical fruit.
[11]  Nallah :  Canal

26 Jun 2011

Kartooos....., Let’s Go Save The ‘PM’


4 Nov 1977, was an extremely exhausting day. We got airborne from Chakabama in the wee hours of the morning,  gallivanted the entire day all over Nagaland, did around ten or eleven landings before we got back to Chabua around sunset. By the time I could get hold of the rickety one ton that did Oscar winning performance as an aircrew van, push started it, dropped off Guddu Sahi to his ‘Basha’ and the AFLO to the transit room, I had barely the energy to crawl up to the bar and ask Durga for a drink. That is not fair, one never had to ask Durga for a drink. He usually had a drink in front of you before you could ask for one. I had poured couple of them down the hatch, and Durga was just about starting his business for the evening when Jaya, my CO, came running into the bar. He skidded to a stop four feet away from me.

‘Kartooooos’, he called out. ‘Let us go save the PM’.


Before I had time to grasp what he said, he ran out of the mess like a bat out of hell and took off in his jeep. I waited all of five seconds, and ran out after him mumbling repeatedly, ‘I am not drunk, I am not drunk’, primarily to reassure myself that I was not going loony. In my consternation, I primed my Jawa motor cycle too many times and the bloody thing would not start. I ran with it past Jaya’s house, all the way up to the canteen before I could get it started.  The MI4 that I had flown all day, tail no 637, was the only one on the tarmac and it was getting a well deserved post flight massage. ‘Pontabooo’ Rai was sitting on the rotor head as usual and fiddling around with it like a grease monkey.

‘If you don’t get off, I am going to take off with you on the rotor’, I shouted at Pontabooo while I did rock climbing to get into the MI4.  By the time I kicked the starter, a minute later, Pontaboo had found a shortcut from the rotor head to the co-pilot’s seat. He was such an agile and affable tiny little monkey, he could clamour all over the ungainly MI4 with no ladders, foot or handholds. He was also god’s gift to 105, just about the best engineer that a pilot could ever hope to have as a friend and colleague.

‘I have topped up the tanks, can I fly with you ?’, asked the little monkey, so sweetly that if I were a woman I would have hugged and kissed him.

‘Bugger off’, I told him instead. ‘The CO is coming, you better go hide in the tail boom’. Pontaboo had all sorts of tricks up his sleeve, you could never keep him on ground while we went flying.

‘Where are you going with my MI4 ?’, he asked.

“Don’t know’, I answered truthfully, looking up through the rotors as the MI4 coughed and started, slowly starting to grind sideways like a ‘Dosa Grinder’. Pontabooo perceived that all MI4s in 105 belonged to him, he was very possessive. ‘I think we are going to save the bloody Prime Minister’, I said shaking my head at the preposterous thought. It was a pitch black night, illuminated somewhat by the hangar lights behind me. The clouds were so low that one could reach out and touch them. Every few seconds there was thunder and lightning, the wind sashaying and spraying the MI4 with water every once in a while. The storm was just approaching Chabua, as mean a storm as one could encounter. I did not have to imagine how bad and mean.  Guddu and I had just come right through it about two hours earlier, on our way from Chakabama.

 I saw Jaya’s jeep coming down the road, wobbling at high speed, one of the front tyres flat. In his haste to go and get the PM, he couldn’t have cared much about driving a jeep even without wheels, I think he would even have flown the MI4 without it’s bloody rotors if he had to go and get the PM, he was that kind of a guy, the very dependable sort. I pressed the engage button and the rotors began to churn faster and faster, the MI4 came alive, it was no longer a beast, it became a dream machine. I didn’t wait for Jaya to strap up in the co-pilot’s seat, I just took off from the dispersal and headed east towards Tinsukhia railway station. I had no idea where were going or what we were trying to do, but I knew with 100% certainty that whatever it was, wherever it  was, on a night like this we could do it only with the help of the railway line. I levelled the MI4 at about twenty five meters and switched on the landing light. I flipped the ‘Coolie Hat’ to alternately point the landing light forward and downward to kook out for trees ahead of us and the railway line besides us. At full throttle, around 190 kmph, we went swishing and vibrating towards Tinsukhia.

 ‘You want to tell me what is going on ?’, I asked my CO.

In the cockpit I could take liberties with Jaya. Pontaboo was on the ladder, holding on to the rear of Jaya’s seat, half inside the cockpit, his head covered by the leather helmet with two bulbous earphones sticking out from the sides. He was smiling ear to ear, so excited that his eyes were shining in the dark like two LEDs.

‘Morarji has crashed in Jorhat, turn south Katooos, head for Sibsagar’, he said.

I did nothing, just kept going east.

 There was some RT natter between Chabua ATC and Dinjan Radar, which Jaya handled. Everybody was on nine pins, very nervy and very touchy. I could make out that venerable Bhide Saheb, our COO, was in the ATC, watchful and appreciative of what we were doing.

 ‘Where are you going Kartoooos ?’, Jaya asked me with some irritation. ‘We have to go to Jorhat and not Tinsukhia’, he said raising his eyebrows.

‘Alpha Apha, Dinjan .....if you want to go to Jorhat it is to the south, I have you on my scope, confirm your compass is OK ?’, Dinjan radar piped up.  I was so close to Dinjan that if they stuck their head out, they could have seen me going past. Usually Dinjan had ‘no pickup’ on any MI4, but tonight they were being extra sweet, the radars must have been on full power with the MTI switched off. The entire east, every AF station, every air traffic service, every military establishment including the army was on ‘stand to’. However, they were all sitting on their butts. Alpha Alpha was the only thing going anywhere, especially in this weather. All eyes, including those in Eastern Air Command (EAC) at Shillong was on Alpha Alpha. But here I was heading in the wrong direction.

‘No sweat’, I said pressing the PTT button and transmitting to the world at large with a broad smile. ‘Tonight we will have to go to Jorhat like the Dibrugarh Express, via Tinsukhia and Mariani. Follow the f****** railway line’.  

As if to confirm what I had said, there was a bolt of lighting to our right, towards south, where Jorhat lay. We could not hear the thunder over the clamour of the MI4’s engine and the swishing noise of it’s rotors.       


Early that morning, on 4 Nov 1977, Guddu and I had got airborne from our detachment at Chakabama, the HQ of 81 Mountain Brigade with a huge concrete helipad, deep within Nagaland, near Kohima.  Chakabama was located around 2000 feet, in a large open bowl that looked like a lemon squeezer, on top of a small hill surrounded by 8 - 9000 feet high mountain ranges all around. Being privileged, the HQ of 8 Mountain Div, who were the overall boss, was high up in the hills, at Zakama, around 7000 feet, with it’s own deadly helipad.  Zakama helipad, though black top and large, had several hundred feet vertical drop on three sides and a near vertical wall on the fourth side, with steps leading to the Div HQ above the helipad. Most of the MI4 pilots were scared to go and land there and hence found all sorts of excuses not to go on detachment. Personally, I had no choice, I was usually sent there on punishment, and hence had grown to love Zakama, like getting to love Dracula when you see too many horror films.

One could see Zakama from Chakabama, about ten km as the crow would fly, if the crow knew how to fly like a MI4. One MI4 and two dare devil pilots were the sum total of the air power that existed for GOC 8 Mtn Div to combat highly stressful ‘anti terrorist’ insurgency operations’ in Nagaland those days, in an area of 30,000 sq km. As a young man with limited vision and wisdom, it seemed to me then that the rest of the IAF were not on talking terms with the army.  Earlier that year, SS Khaplang, Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) had returned from China with their band of fully armed, trained and brainwashed followers and had taken refuge in the Kachin hills, right across the border with Burma. Hot pursuits were not allowed, and hence they were left pretty much alone. But in Oct, beginning of fair weather, they had begun to infiltrate into Nagaland, setting up ambushes, clashing with army pickets, hassling villages for wine women and food, besides forcible recruitment of young Naga boys and girls. When the army in 8 Mtn Div went on the prowl, the MI4 at Chakabama went with them. The MI4 was good at pursuing everything like a mongrel, including Naga insurgents. I was having the time of my life, with never a dull day.    

 Technically there was an AF Liaison Officer to interface EAC with HQ 8 Mtn Div. However, I don’t think EAC had any interest either in 8Mtn Div, the Naga insurgency or the bloody MI4 at Chakabama, as long as everyone was happy.  Since the MI4 guys kept everyone happy, the AFLO was even more happy and left us completely alone to do what we thought was best. Chakabama was out of sight from Chabua our base, and hence, they had no clue about what we did or did not do, at least till we came back to base, sometimes after several months. So technically, once we reached Chakabama, the MI4 guys were totally on their own do their own thing, kings in their own fiefdom, son-in-laws of the army, a feather in the Army’s cap, though the rest of the AF looked at us with disdain like the boot nail, the one that poked the big toe.    

 Early that morning, on 4 Nov 1977, a Friday, the usual winter fair weather was replaced with an unusual ‘Western Disturbance’, cloudy, overcast, dull day, with no sign of the sun. When we picked up the GOC 8 Mtn Div at Zakama, he was in the middle of a crisis, in perfectly foul mood. During the course of the day, despite worsening weather and GOC’s equally foul mood, we took him all over Nagaland, to Senthenu, Mokokchung, Nian, Kiphre, Jessami, Phesami,  Zunheboto, Phek chasing Naga insurgents. We finally dropped him back to Zakama by around 1530 hrs so that we could return to Chabua that same evening. Next day, on 5 Nov, a Saturday, we had planned to celebrate the Squadron anniversary. Before we came on detachment Geetha (Jaya’s wife) and Kiran (Guddu Sahi’s wife), had extracted a promise that we would come back for the anniversary party. Guddu was in-charge of the food and I was in-charge of entertainment and without us the party would have been less than perfect. If I had not returned that night, I knew that Jaya would have our balls for breakfast next day. So weather or no weather, we had to reach Chabua before sunset. At Zakama, we picked up the AFLO since he was also invited for our anniversary party. We hurried to Chakabama, refuelled the MI4 full tanks with another tank in the dicky, collected our baggage and took off for Chabua, all in a jiffy, along with six or seven airmen, part of our detachment ground crew.

 Usually in fair weather, we would have followed the valley due north, past Kilomi, Zunheboto, to Mokokchung, got out of the hills, turned west towards Mariani, leaving Jorhat about 20 miles to  port,  and finally turned north east to go direct to Chabua. The trip from Chakabama to Chabua usually took around an hour and fifteen minutes.  But 4 Nov 77 was an unusual day. To our horror, when Guddu and I proceeded north from Chakabama, we found our path completely blocked by dark ominous low clouds and heavy rain.  There was no question of turning back, we had to be back for the Sqn anniversary, it was a do or die situation. So we did what all helicopter pilots do, we hit the deck, ten feet above the river and penetrated the rain when we were about ten minutes out of Chakabama. We did not come out of rain for the next 140 minutes, till we landed at Chabua. I have subsequently flown in rain, even in Spain, in Europe, in Russia, I have been below line squalls, even penetrated a ruddy cyclone off Vizag, but you have to believe me that on that day, the 4th Nov 77, the weather was the most foul, ferocious, mother of all weather, that I have ever penetrated in my entire long flying career.  It was an incredible freak weather especially for Nov, a winter time aberration in the east.

 Initially we turned this way and that way, crossing small ridges to remain out of clouds, generally heading north and following the river.  As we kept going, we kept descending, few feet at a time, till the nose wheel was dangling in the river, and yet the clouds seemed to be sitting on our head. Despite the windshield wipers going at supersonic swipe, the forward visibility was near zero. So we opened the side doors and peered ahead with our heads sticking out. More often than not we kicked rudder and side slipped so that we could see whatever was in front. There was nothing in front except more menacing clouds and more intense rain. Several times Guddu suggested that we turn around and go back to Chakabama. Each time I smiled, I could just about imagine what the ladies club would do to us if we did not reach Chabua, I was sure that they would lynch me from the nearest pole, or at least that is what I told Guddu, so that I could continue doing what I was doing, enjoying every bit of it even if it looked rather suicidal. As I went along, I rattled off the names of the villages that we were leaving unseen on the cloud covered hill slopes above us.

‘See, that is Dzulhami on our left, that is where my friend Angu lives’, I smiled at Guddu to reassure him. ‘Ahead is Kilomi, you remember that girl in the red dress talking to me at the Kohima fair, don’t you ? Well her sister lives in Kilomi’, I said reassuringly. ‘We will not be able to see Zunheboto, that is high up in the clouds, but there is a boat bridge about six minutes ahead. I think we will be able to follow the road all the way to Mokok and out of the hills’, I predicted trying to look confident. ‘See, we are following the river, the river is going downhill, so we can descend with the river and come out of the hills’.  Inside, deep down in my heart, I was not so confident, my heart was pumping at twice the normal rate and adrenalin was flowing in my veins, instead of blood. Like Dracula at sunrise, I was scared witless. However, I knew Nagaland like the back of my hand.

 The cockpit was completely flooded. We were soaked to the skin. The AFLO had climbed up the ladder behind Guddu’s seat, as much as he could climb up. If the rotors were not above us, I think he would have climbed further up and jumped out of the aircraft, he was the worst affected, helpless victim of that experience. I think his heart had stopped beating completely and he was surviving only on hope, and may be thoughts about a drink when we landed. I had purposely switched off his intercom, so that I would not hear his moans and sighs. I could not see the ground crew, but from past experience I knew that they would be fast asleep in the dicky, they were quite used to their wayward pilots and I think they had implicit faith in them too.         

 Sometimes we saw the road to Mokok and sometimes we didn’t, but the river was there right below us, a narrow band of fast flowing deluge. It jumped over huge boulders, took  winding turns like a formula one car, fell over into dark vertical depths of hell and resurfaced after the fall as if that was nothing but a routine manoeuvre. Finally we crossed the last of the hills and the river flared out into a passive broad avenue with many islands sticking out like sentinels. “Bernoulli’s Theorem’, I said jokingly to Guddu. ‘When a flow encounters a divergent duct, the velocity must drop to maintain the sum total of energy constant’. But Guddu was not listening to me, he was looking at the view from about ten meters above ground, at what appeared to be hell in it’s worst fury. The entire skyline was dark as night, though it was still day, rolling and thrashing grey black clouds covered the horizon ahead of us.

‘Jorhat, Alpha India, do you read’, I called over the RT to keep Guddu in good humour.

“Alpha India, Jorhat, loud and clear, the voice came so loud that I had to reduce the volume.

‘Request a weather check’, I enquired, rather dumb thing to do.

‘Confirm proceeding to base ?’, Jorhat asked with incredulous curiosity.

‘Affirmative, back to base from Chaka’.  .

‘Jorhat weather lousy, low clouds, Charlie Bravo east of us, rain approaching. Chabua reporting Charlie Bravo south of them. I think you have Charlie Bravos escort all the way to Chabua, confirm you wish to divert to Jorhat ? Your homing 270 ’.

‘Any traffic ?’, I asked. Another stupid question under the circumstances, I was beginning to feel silly.

‘Affirmative, airfield closed for VIP movement, PM landing in forty minutes.

‘Thanks’, I said with feeling. The controller in Jorhat was my good friend. ‘I better get out of your space before the Piss Man arrives. Good night, over to Chabua’, I told Jorhat.

“Alpha India, change over to Chabua’, he concurred.

 ‘Now what ?’, Guddu asked me conversationally.  

‘Now we go to Mariani Railway Station, and after that follow the railway line like Dibrugarh Express’, I told Guddu with a broad smile. We were flying low, at around five meters above ground, at low speed, all the things that my mother made me promise I would not do. We were going in and out of thick rain. These were exonerating circumstances.

We turned north east and after about fifteen minutes of harrowing worry, we hit the railway line and I turned left ten degrees to follow it.

‘Where are we ?’, Guddu asked me with serious displeasure.

I was pretty pissed off. All the while from Chakabama to Mariani, when we were deep within the hills, flying through worst weather, he never once asked me where we were. Now that I had brought him out of the hills, and we were chugging along like a train, he asks ‘where are we ?’.

‘I only have Naga girlfriends’ I retorted unkindly. ‘I don’t have Assamese girlfriends, so I don’t know where they live OK?’

‘You got controls’, I told him with some irritation. We were now flying over a green carpet of some tea garden, with tall trees looming at us every once in a while. The sky was getting darker and darker, the clouds lower and lower, the rain falling in buckets. I had my head out of the MI4, and called out once in a while.

‘Treeeeeee’, I would call.  Guddu would pop up by a few feet and come down after we crossed the tree.

‘Wiiiiiire’, I would call out when we were going to hit high tension cables. Guddu would pop up by a few feet and come down after we crossed the wires.

‘Staaaaaaaaaation’, I called out with much excitement.

“So what ?’, Guddu answered with visible irritation.

“If you go back and hover over the station, I will tell you where we are’, I told Guddu with a smile.

Guddu did a stall turn at five meters, turned the MI4 around, and went to hover at the end of a long open platform. There in big letters, on a yellow board, in English, Hindi and Assamese it said “Simaluguri”.  While he did a rudder turn and got the MI4 facing the right way once again, I groped around for a torn and tattered one inch map that I had stowed in the door frame along with the usual million map. The map was soggy and waterlogged. But I managed to get the grid out of it and transferred the grid to the million map.

‘Mmmmmmm, Ah,  I now know where we are, we are absolutely and correctly adhering to the route map of the Eastern Railway’, I told Guddu in jest. While I was doing the map exercise, Guddu had once again descended to around five meters to strictly remain on top of the railway line.

Suddenly there was a very very loud shrieking sound. A long blast of a fog horn, so loud that it almost made us deaf. Guddu kicked the rudder in such a fright that we started to travel sideways. And through the open side door, we saw a freight train heading straight for us, head on, about fifty meters in front of us. Guddu yanked the controls so violently that we went into clouds and by the time he managed to extricate us and descend below clouds, the train was long gone.

‘Phew’, I let out my breath and it must have sounded much like the fog horn, with less frequency due to the Doppler effect. After that we kept the railway line a healthy fifty meters to one side and did not fly on top of it, as we were doing earlier. We went where the railway line went, zipped past railway stations and as we approached Tinsukhia, we left much of the weather behind us. We were able to climb to three hundred meters and land at Chabua without much ado. 

We were shaken but not stirred.


Three hours later, I was back in the muck, heading back the way I had come. It had to be done. The Piss Man had crashed and it was now up to us to go and find him. As I went along, following the railway line in a pitch dark night at low level, steering by the powerful landing light, I was quite sure that in such a night we would not be able to find anything smaller than a fat elephant. Due to his affinity for drinking what came out of his own plumbing,  I was quite sure that Moraji was rather undernourished and hence difficult to locate even in Connaught Place in the middle of the afternoon. But I did not reason why, just figured out that I may have to just do and die. I was supposed to do things like that and not worry about it.

As we went along, Jaya gave the run down.

After he yanked me out from the bar, Jaya had gone to meet the COO, venerable Bhide Sahib, who himself had just barely grasped the essentials from his counterpart in Jorhat.  Morarji Desai, the PM, had got airborne from Delhi that evening, in a Com Sqn TU124, for a political meeting at Jorhat.  Assam elections were approaching and it may have been  imperative for Morarji to attend the late night rally in Jorhat. The captain of the TU124,  W/C D’Lima must have been aware of the political imperatives, as well as the bad weather ahead of Bagdogra. With an eccentric man like Moraji, D’Lima may have had little choice, he may have been in a dilemma. He probably may have hoped that by the time he crossed Bagdogra, the weather in the Assam plains would be Gin clear. After all, it was winter and a bit of winter rain was not likely to bother the TU 124 with far more sophisticated avionics than any other airplane in IAF at that time. There were no metrological weather radars those days in the east and most of the weather prediction was done with the eye ball. None in Jorhat had the wisdom or X-Ray vision to foresee the mother of all storms that had descended from the hills and which I had earlier penetrated inadvertently.  When D’Lima crossed Bagdogra, he must have talked to Tezpur, Guwahati as well as Jorhat and heard about worsening weather, but he may have chosen to ignore it assuming that he would manage with the cockpit sophistication. As he proceeded further, he may have inadvertently crossed the point of no return, no diversion, making it imperative for him to land at Jorhat. The onboard weather radar in the TU 124 may or may not have given him the true picture of the mother of all storms. D’Lima had to descend through all that weather, but I had simply gone under it.

D’Lima committed himself to lading at Jorhat, broke cloud too late and found himself misaligned to the runway. He went around and decided to do a timed circuit, something which was common those days with lower speed aircraft like the Daks, Otters, Caribous and the Avro with hardly any cockpit sophistication. The TU was too fast to do timed circuits and besides there was strong wind and low clouds. The only landing aid of any value at Jorhat was the Non Directional Beacon (NDB) and that usually pointed at the storm clouds rather than at the runway. D’Lima probably lost sight of the runway at downwind, the airfield lighting was by goose necks and Jorhat had no runway lights or rotating strobe light beacon.

 He made a second blind approach and crashed around 1915 hrs, somewhere near Jorhat airfield. No one knew where. That is why we were hurrying, to go and find out.

 At Tinsukhia, I turned right and kept the railway line twenty meters to my left. I did not want another head on, with another crazy train. As we were going out of RT range, I could hear Dinjan calling. Staccato interruptions on the intercom, a barely audible call to Alpha Alpha.

‘I think, Dinjan is calling us’, I told Jaya.

For a minute, he contemplated. Whether to press on, and to say ‘To hell with Dinjan’.

‘Turn around’, he said with finality. ‘We can only kill ourselves tonight, no way we are going to find anyone, including Moraji’.

I did a quick-stop and stall turn. At low altitude, and in pitch dark night, it was rather silly to do a bank and rudder turn. We went back to Tinsukhia.

Dinjan came back on the air, loud and clear.

‘Alpha Alpha, Chabua wants you to go back, the PM has been found, he is being taken to Jorhat’.

‘Where did he crash ?’, I asked with insatiable curiosity.

‘I believe about  three km from touchdown, he undershot the runway’, Dinjan informed me in the matter of fact tone of all fighter controllers.

 Later that night, while we went back to our unfinished business of doing cheers with more delectable fluids than what Morarji preferred, we were told that D’Lima and four of his crew had perished in the crash, and that Morarji had miraculously escaped unhurt with all the other passengers also unharmed. Jaya cancelled our anniversary party and postponed the celebrations till the end of the month. That night we mourned the death of our colleagues, we were not too concerned whether Morarji lived, drank piss, to die another day.

 Next Day & The Day After

Though Morarji went back to Delhi the next day, Jaya and I did couple of uneventful day trips during the next two days, between Jorhat and Ita Nagar, as also to Sibsagar and Namrup, mainly to evacuate Thungan, the CM of Arunachal, who had broken couple of bones in the crash. We also ferried and distributed several suitcases full of bundled notes which Morarji had thoughtfully brought with him for disbursing to ultra left radicals at Sibsagar and Namrup.  The very guys who later on went on to become the ULFA terrorists. Ours was not to reason why those days, we just did things hoping that the politicals were doing the right things to make us die for a good cause. Foolish thoughts that overwhelm young soldiers, and pilots.